The thing about a rampaging mob is that it rampages. Once it gets out the tiki torches and starts yelling “Monster,” someone’s windmill is going to burn, and steering this marching disaster can turn out to be a little trickier than it seems.
The Koch brothers, now reduced to one active brother and his multi-billion dollar empire, spent years building up a set of “institutes” and “think tanks” and “foundations” that allowed them to practice the Republican form of welfare—paying would-be politicians to sit around and hone their media skills. These institutions also served as PR factories for the pro-corporate, pro-fossil fuel religion the Kochs were interested in spreading, and as a source of handy checks for those Republicans willing to preach this message.
This was the traditional form of building power within the Republican Party. Buy influence within the existing power structure. Create your new generation of true believers. Hold out a branch to those Republicans temporarily out of power by providing a “job” that kept them visible on Face the Nation, or at least audible on Diane Rehm. Following this route gained the Kochs considerable heft within the GOP—particularly because their checks came with lots of zeros attached. The growing network of Koch-supported organizations, and the steady stream of Koch money, made the brothers one of the central powers behind the Republican Party.
And by 2008, working carefully, diligently, and at great expense, what the Kochs had purchased ... was an utter disaster. The Republican Party was the sole owner of, not just a pair of unending wars, but an economic catastrophe unmatched since the Great Depression. The exact policies that the Kochs had put forward through organizations like Americans for Prosperity and the Cato Institute (originally the Charles Koch Foundation)—the policies they had pushed through legislation like Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act—had so eroded the stability of financial institutions that the entire world went tumbling down a hillside of leveraged instruments, secondary debt, and credit default swaps.
By the end of 2008, what the Kochs had to show for four decades of massive investment, was an economy in tatters, a 37-vote Democratic majority in the House, a borderline filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate, and Barack Obama in the White House. And all those Democrats seemed fixed to not just roll back all the Kochs’ careful work, but give more power and benefits to people who were … not the Kochs.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that they threw a long ball. In 2009, when a ridiculous micro-uprising began over, of all things, a program to help homeowners who were being crushed by the combination of high mortgage rates and a tumbling economy, the Kochs seized on it. Fed it. Made it their own. And created both the mob and the monster.
The real genius of that moment was that the Kochs understood the real glowing embers behind the tiny whiffs of smoke thrown off by the nascent tea party movement. Racism. That the government was working against the wishes of large investment banks to create a program through which homeowners stuck with high mortgage rates could renegotiate their loans was a factor that upset … no one. No one except perhaps for TV stock “madman” Jim Cramer and a handful of investment bankers. But those guys were the villains. The black hats of the hour. They were the very people responsible for flooring the gas in the effort to drive the economy over a cliff. No one really cared what they said.
Except … except that, with a fine tuning of the message, that program to help troubled homeowners wasn’t about troubled homeowners. It was about troubled black homeowners. It was about blacks who had gone way out on a limb to buy homes they couldn’t afford and who were now—rightly, rightly—getting what they deserved. It was about blacks who had overreached their station. Gotten out of their place. Just like that Barack Obama.
The tea party wasn’t careful, wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t large. But those first gatherings included all the signs of what was to come. Literally. There were signs. Signs that said Barack Obama was a Muslim. Signs that said government was still the problem. Signs that said ordinary Americans were “taxed enough already.” It was like a signal flare going up for the Kochs.
Even if their years of working piece by piece through institutions and think tanks had come to tatty ends, they still had their bankrolled team of would-be Republican “leaders” and their network of expert PR generators. So they took a gamble and trained one of their biggest guns, Americans for Prosperity, toward the tea party. They provided the bus. They booked the locations. They worked the phones to get the news on AM radio and local television. They sent out both their Koch-trained candidates and their Koch-funded teams to make sure that energy stayed high.
The Kochs had discovered that that raw nerve of racism and working class white resentment was still there. It was just as throbbing and vital as it had been for Thumond and Nixon and Reagan. The stories about how the money paid by—stolen from—hardworking whites was going to lazy blacks and invading browns didn’t need to be created from scratch. They just needed a little touch-up. The greatest energy of the right still lived within its ugliest corners, and the Kochs found that the more they reached into those spaces, the more angry, ugly, energy they found. They found that Republican voters didn’t really care about deficits, or any of that bunk. They cared about … hate.
It was enough that in 2010, Americans rushed to the polls to blame Democrats for the disaster Republicans had worked decades to create. Enough that they did it again in 2014. What started as a fringe movement the edge of the party, a laughable sideline to the Very Dignified Conservative Movement, owned that movement and the Republican Party well before the 2016 election. The Kochs had spent more than forty years winning over the GOP by handing out cash and working to build policy. But it took less than eight years to utterly transform the party by simply touching the raw nerves of racism and xenophobia.
The success of that small investment in the tea party had to be heady, even for characters who were so used to victory and having their own way as the Koch brothers. By 2014, they had taken the Republican Party from the the wilderness of a minority in both houses, to the largest Republican majority in a century. Fifty-four seats in the Senate. And 247 seats in the House. And they hadn’t stopped at the federal level. The Kochs’ infrastructure had always been greatest at the state level. By 2014 that netted the party control of 31 governorships and 70 percent of state legislative chambers.
They had taken the broken pieces of the GOP and turned it into a mighty engine. And all it took was embracing the fear that white America, straight America, Christian America was under threat from an insurgent wave of brown, Muslim invaders waving rainbow flags. It worked beautifully. The GOP was back in the driver’s seat, and the Koch brothers were driving, with a cluster of freshly minted “Freedom Caucus” congressmen who knew exactly whose hands were on the controls.
Only … the problem with a machine fueled by outrage is that it’s always looking for something more outrageous. One by one, the candidates in the Republican 2016 primaries made the same discovery: Republican voters would no longer be satisfied with an arched eyebrow and a few puffs on a dog whistle. They wanted their racism straight. They wanted someone who would give a voice to their darkest emotions without reserve. They wanted their hate 200-proof.
While the Koch brothers were still harrumphing about dignity and gesturing toward all they had done over four decades and then-some of Republican think-tankery, Donald Trump strolled in, grabbed the keys to the engine they had built, and drove it away. To their further shock, the Freedom Caucus Republicans that they had installed as carefully as screwing a bulb into a socket, were happy to hand over their controls to Trump. Overnight they became his biggest fans even if the policies he vaguely, inconsistently described were at utter odds with everything they’d claimed to be about. The new GOP was not about policy. At all. It’s about owning people, figuratively and literally. About getting in the face of those blacks, and Mexicans, and libtards and making them hurt … even if it takes hurting everyone to make it happen.
Now the party is so far outside the hands of the people who dragged it from the 2008 ditch, that it has named them pariahs. Because, of course, there’s nothing more threatening to the new cult leader than the old cult leader. Still, it’s not as if all their investments bought them nothing. By some estimates, the Kochs alone are saving a billion dollars a year thanks to the tax bill that Donald Trump doodled on. That’s a pretty good payday … even if an authoritarian dictatorship wasn’t exactly what was in mind when the Kochs created their first libertarian think tank in 1974.
That’s assuming they get to keep it. Because the thing about a hate machine is that it runs on hate. Racism is good fuel. Sexism, too. Hating gays will keep the burners on for awhile, and the press is already smoldering. But there is already room for more. Those tiki torches always need more. All it takes is someone pointing their way when next the leader of the mob shouts “Monster!”